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A Stellar Pairing

Soprano Renée Fleming, right, will pair up with world-renowned pianist Evgeny Kissin for a performance May 27 at Chenery Auditorium.
Fleming and Kissin performance ‘a coup for the ages’

A long-awaited performance by soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Evgeny Kissin is finally happening in Kalamazoo this month.

The pair are fitting in a May 27 performance at Chenery Auditorium after their concert at Washington’s Kennedy Center and ahead of another at New York’s Carnegie Hall. They will perform selections — solo and duo — by Liszt, Schubert, Duparc and Rachmaninoff.

Their performance, in the works since 2018, will be the final concert of the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival’s current season. It begins at 8 p.m.

The pair were originally set to perform in the 2020 Gilmore International Piano Festival, but that year’s festival was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The new date was secured a year ago and announced in August.

“We couldn’t be sure the stars would ever align again,” says Pierre van der Westhuizen, The Gilmore’s executive and artistic director. “But her agent told me Renée said, ‘We’re going to Chicago. Why not do The Gilmore?’”

5 years in the making

Securing major artists usually starts at least two years in advance.

“Back in 2018, I was new at The Gilmore and asked Kissin’s agent if there would ever be a chance to bring him to Michigan,” van der Westhuizen says. “She said, ‘Let me work on it — he and Renée (Fleming) are talking about putting something together.’ I told her I would jump through hoops of fire to get both of them here together. It is a coup for the ages, especially as Evgeny has never performed in Michigan.”

The Moscow-born Kissin has been a piano phenom since a young age, with a breakout performance as a preteen in 1984.

“When Evgeny played the Chopin concertos at 12 years old, he sounded as if he had decades of experience. It was not only the virtuosity, that he could retain all the music in his mind, but his maturity. He was a complete artist already,” van der Westhuizen says, adding that the pianist worked with only one teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, until her death in 2021.

About this loss, Kissin has said, “Everything I am able to do on the piano, I owe to her.”

A Kissin performance in Pennsylvania in 2001 is still a potent memory for van der Westhuizen. “I was in Pittsburgh to hear him just after the World Trade Center bombings. Of course, he couldn’t get a flight out of New York, so he and his conductor drove to Pittsburgh, arriving on the day of the concert. I remember standing outside the hall, listening to him rehearse. The impact of that moment and the healing power of that performance is something I will never forget. He is truly a genius in the truest sense of the word. We use that word so much, but he is the real deal.”

As to Fleming, van der Westhuizen says, “Even if you’re not an opera fan, you have heard of her,” possibly because she performs a wide range of music.

While top of mind as a classical music and opera performer — as in the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of The Hours in 2022 — Fleming also sang in last year’s Joni Mitchell Songbook presentation at the Kennedy Center. The American soprano has won five Grammy Awards, sung at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, and was recognized by President Barack Obama in 2012 with the National Medal of Arts.

Van der Westhuizen has heard both Kissin and Fleming many times, but never together, and confesses to getting overcome by fan fluster when he met the soprano.

“I met Ms. Fleming once, though she won’t remember. I was in Chicago to see a friend’s debut at the Lyric Opera in 2018. We went backstage and ran right into her and Placido Domingo. I was a blubbering idiot, but she was very gracious,” he recalls.

Preparing for world-famous performers

Preparing for artists of this caliber requires no small effort. While The Gilmore staff cannot reveal the artists’ hospitality requests, we did learn that Fleming will have a dresser, or personal assistant, to tend to her needs and Kissin will have a black-clad page turner on stage and play a Steinway grand piano trucked in specifically for this concert.

“Steinway in New York will be shipping us the same piano he will use at Carnegie Hall,” says Anders Dahlberg, Gilmore director of operations.

How does a grand piano get shipped? “On a truck, very carefully,” says Dahlberg. “The legs are removed, it is placed on its side, crated, and loaded onto a truck.” It is scheduled to arrive four days before the concert so it can acclimate to the temperature and humidity of Chenery Auditorium.

“As big as these pianos are, they are very delicate,” says Dahlberg, adding that The Gilmore will also fly in Kissin’s preferred piano technician from New York, who, like the piano, will arrive a few days before the concert.

A must-see

“Artistically speaking, this program is not just about the famous artists,” says van der Westhuizen. “It will truly be a unique artistic experience: virtuoso piano music paired with virtuoso coloratura soprano. Not very many presenters are doing vocal song recitals anymore. In this music — Schubert, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff — the singer and the piano are on equal footing. The pianist is not just an accompanist.”
Van der Westhuizen says he is most anticipating hearing the Rachmaninoff pieces, noting that Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff himself performed at Chenery in 1925.

“To have a Russian pianist play Rachmaninoff, paired with the incredibly voluminous voice of Renée Fleming, well, I think Rachmaninoff himself would swoon over the combination — as, I think, would Irving Gilmore (the late Kalamazoo businessman and philanthropist who was a big supporter of the arts). This will be an historic occasion. People will kick themselves if they miss it.”

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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